Your Very Own Dystopia

November 25th, 2014 by Darin

Image source: Action Speaks Radio.

Image source: Action Speaks Radio.

The big secret behind dystopias—books, movies, video games—is that we, the writers, are cheating. Dystopias are easy—the number one rule behind Your Very Own Dystopia is to keep it simple: dystopias don’t usually arise because people are jerks; they arise because somebody, somewhere thinks he or she has the best idea how to improve the world for everyone else. The plan is always utopian at first—a sweeping, well-maintained, smooth-operating civilization that gets everyone what they need quickly, safely, and efficiently. The problem, of course, is that nation-building is a little subjective. One man’s utopia is almost always everyone else’s dystopia. Presto! You’ve just ruined the world for everyone else. Go enjoy your bleak architecture and gray-faced populace: you’re a bona fide dystopian now.

And that’s fine. Dystopias fantasies are a lot of fun. We’ve been dreaming them up and threatening each other with them for quite a long time. They’re corrective—they posit a slightly different version of what we’re already used to, yanking us out of the contexts of the everyday thrum and giving us a chance to see the wizard behind the curtains of our own daily lives.

But when you can’t change the channel, or put down the book, or save your game for later, dystopias become problematic. Part of why we like them so much is because they’re so sustainably sinister. The people stuck inside can’t get out of them, not until some intrepid revolutionary comes predictably along and bucks the system—then everything goes Technicolor, and the soundtrack switches to a major key. Most of the townsfolk in the background get really annoyed because, well, they’re used to being dystopians—it’s convenient. For them, revolutionaries are just jackasses with megaphones, and their demonstrations disrupt traffic and piss off the government, and threaten our freedoms.

Jerks.

Which is where we find ourselves today, and why it isn’t funny anymore—why the genre is so white-hot right now. Dystopian media is so reflective of our own interrelated, transnational day-to-days that it shares more in common with reality television (excuse me: unscripted dramas) than it does with zany science fiction.

Image: Getty Images

Ferguson protestors. Image: Getty Images

What are some other rules in the dystopian game? Police states are common. Typically, when some sociopathic fuckwit enacts his or her plan to Rule the World Correctly, there’s a bit of . . . pushback. The populace has to be broken like a herd of mustangs, and that’s most easily done with militarized police forces. The reportage of the unrest in Ferguson looks more like documentary footage from the Arab Spring. But this is in the middle of the United States. “Freedomland.” For many of us, this is our first time to see a dystopia in the backyard, and it only looks weird because we’re not supposed to see it. And it’s a self-perpetuating system. Dystopia begets dystopia, as we’ve seen in the increased concern and paranoia that’s delivering military equipment to Texas schools, as detailed in this September 15th article from the Texas Tribune.

But we could chart this paranoia up to dangerous times—and we should, if we’re going to build this dystopia properly. Pull up your favorite dystopia, and see how fear and continual war are used as justifications for power grabs, perpetual states of emergency, and surveillance states: Eurasia in Orwell’s 1984; the ill-defined-but-upcoming war in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; the menacing, untamed nature beyond the Green Wall in Zamyatin’s We. Sound familiar? The War on Terror has been chasing shifting enemies for thirteen years.

1984's Big Brother.

1984’s Big Brother.

Of course, none of this is to make light of the very real horrors and injustices that people are enduring all over the world. Those aren’t fictions, and they deserve heightened scrutiny, analysis, and awareness. And there’s the rub: you don’t want that stuff to happen to you, do you? You don’t want to end up like them. So get in line and do what I say. Especially if I’m backed by another favorite dystopian trick: the cult of personality. There’s usually somebody (the Benefactor, Big Brother) who acts as the final caregiver, the final protector of the people against their enemies. A personality larger than life itself—a shared, cultural figurehead in whose personality everyone has some claim, some stake of opinion, reaction, or belief. And it takes a lot of work—a lot of money and time and resources—to create one of these personalities. We in the U.S. should know, as The Washington Post reported back in 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each spent more than a billion dollars on their campaigns. For the crushing majority of us, that is an unfathomable price tag. But that’s what it costs these days to win the presidency, and doing so is big business, employing scores of campaign workers, drivers, security guards—the list goes on. There’s an entire industry behind identifying and securing the leader who will protect us from Them.

And it works . . . for a while. A typical hallmark in a dystopia is that things are getting along okay. No one’s having a particularly great time, but if you follow the rules and stand where you’re supposed to, you’ll get your bucket of Soylent Green, and you can go home to watch the programs that have been federally approved for broadcast. And then you can get up and do it all over again. If all you want is a mostly stable, unexciting, safe existence, you’d do fine with a townhome in some urban dystopia. After all, there is plenty of reassurance, plenty of propaganda to let you know that What You’re Doing is Right—even if you are a racist, or a sexist, or just a moron.

When people start to get twitchy, that’s when the cracks appear. Surveillance and detection become high priorities for our Dystopian State—after all, one must root out the revolutionaries who might start a cultural wildfire. Everyone is safer this way—we can’t allow the fringe to collapse the system. And that means some casualties—some incomprehensible arrests, sham convictions (or exonerations), compromised bank accounts and phone records. If you want to make an omelet, crack some eggs, and just wait for the next content cycle to wash the news away. By that time, people will be paying less attention to the whistleblowers and reactionaries that you’re quietly trying to disappear. The court of public opinion is for sale after all.

Which is when things really become insidious. People need to buy in to your Dystopian State—sometimes bread lines and terror threats just aren’t enough. So they need to be educated (programmed) such that their own identities, their own understandings and worldviews, are tied up in your ideology. You can pull this off by any number of means. You can make up a new language that serves your purposes, you can lock down your borders and censor outside influence (that’s a favorite), and you can very easily make scapegoats and scare people from time to time. That one’s classic. And if you can tie voluntary participation in this process into the message, then you’re golden. It’s not dissimilar to our own runaway problem with college tuition. You want to go to college, don’t you? I mean, that’s where the real money is, and well, the neighbors’ kid went to college . . . we know you’re smarter than that guy. Never mind how much it costs. Never mind that it will indenture you to a life of debt that will slow your actual realization of the financial dreams and material promises of a college education. Never mind that those hallowed halls, those sacred spaces, are themselves for sale—you’re getting an education. Which is exactly how we’ve primed you to participate accordingly. The national narrative is about GDP and ROI and gains and returns—if you don’t agree, well, then you might just be an enemy of the state, mightn’t you?

Citizens in dystopian states, like oligarchies, are assets—human resources. Sure, they’re people in the end, and Big Brother really would prefer that you stay safe and lead an unthreatened life—he really would—but he can’t help it if the machines and finances he relies upon to accomplish this need a little extra from you. Nothing is free, after all, and if that means risking the whole system, dispossessing a few folks, disappearing a few gambling with jobs, or restricting a few rights, then thems the breaks. Take a load off with a good story or game or movie about some dystopian Neverland because, I mean, it could be that bad, after all. Aren’t we lucky here, though, in the real world?

Farrago’s Wainscot Returns

October 28th, 2014 by Darin

old manWhen we closed down Farrago’s Wainscot in 2009, after our twelfth issue, it was for the usual reasons: time and money. Publishing the ‘zine was a labor of love—we never charged for it, we never really sold advertising (we gave a few ads away there for a little bit), and we paid as much as we could ($20 per story, poem, or article). The online speculative fiction zeitgeist at the time was definitely “weird.” Weird was everywhere. “New,” “old,” “literary” (sorry, that one was our fault), “post-,” “New, new-,” “little” (again, my fault—needed a dissertation title)—we, collectively, couldn’t get enough. Tastes were changing there around Issue 12, and while we were still bringing in our steady readership, we were running out of music festivals and masquerades and tip jars with which to fund the Old Man’s cabinet of curiosities. Steampunk was on fire; hard SF was making an awesome comeback; and urban fantasy was gobbling titles and categories like a 2nd ed. ooze, which was awesome—we were prone to some urban fantasy publications of our own.

So, with heavy hearts, we stopped the project. The lamentations and gnashing of teeth that we received from internet friends and strangers at our passing surprised us. We had quietly gone about our weird business, keeping mostly to ourselves, garnering a few very nice reviews, some Year’s Best nods, and even pocketing the 2007 StorySouth Million Writers Award for “Best New Online Magazine or Journal” and the 2007 Preditors and Editors Readers’ Poll for “Best Fiction Magazine/Ezine”—not to mention the handful of lauds our contributors collected on their own. We were surprised that people were marking our passing, but it was gratifying.

Life went on.

It’s been five years now since Old Man Farrago last put out his shingle. Behind the scenes, we’ve all shuffled jobs a few times, put out a few books, moved around the country, etc. But we’ve never stopped watching what people are buying and reading. What “weird” means today. How the genre pendulum swings from clearly defined to ill . . . and then back. What it means to write speculative or experimental fiction in an age of increasing efforts to include and understand—in an age when so, so much of this work remains to do. At at time when the world is still falling apart. Like it always does.

firebirdSo it is with great excitement that I tell you that I’ve reached an agreement to revive Farrago’s Wainscot—weirder and more challenging than ever!—under the imprimatur of Resurrection House, who will serve as the ‘zine’s publisher. We will release issue 13 on January 14, 2015, and throughout the year, you’ll see some familiar Farrago alums—many of whom have gone on to publish books and garner awards of their own—and you’ll see fresh new voices. “Fresh weird.” There you go—a new neologism for a new era.

We’ll be paying more. $0.06/word for fiction; $20/poem (Hey, that was a fair price even back then). And we’ll be using a submissions manager, so no more strange emails from the communal hive-mind of the old “wainscot.editors” email address. Our new submissions page has all the details, so go click around the site. It’s been given a facelift, and all your old favorites are still there for a re-read before we re-weird next year. There’s another one: “re-weird.” This is going to be an odd year.

So until January, thanks for reading, and keep up with us on Twitter. We’ll see you in the funny papers.

crawfish

Chimpanzee Audio-play at Audible

October 10th, 2014 by Darin

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You can now hear a fully foleyed and designed sample from the audio-play at Audible.

A Conversation with Washington Independent Review of Books

September 26th, 2014 by Darin

Craig L. Gidney recently interviewed me for Washington Independent Review of Books. Come join the conversation.

Darin Bradley’s second novel, Chimpanzee, traffics in dystopian themes, but not in the same way as does the plot-driven The Hunger Games or the allegorical/satirical stories of Margaret Atwood. Instead, his world recalls the more subtle work of Philip K. Dick or Chang-Rae Lee.

NPR Books on Chimpanzee

September 14th, 2014 by Darin

Jason Heller thoughtfully and keenly reviews Chimpanzee for NPR Books:

As with the best dystopian fiction, Chimpanzee taps into many contemporary issues and fears — in this case, everything from the surveillance state to the student-debt crisis. Chimpanzee is a post-collapse novel for those who have become numb to them, and a unique take on a subgenre in sore need of one. The book’s dazzling originality not only helps overcome much of its dryness, it makes it well worth the extra homework.

Christopher East on Chimpanzee

September 12th, 2014 by Darin

Christopher East very kindly reviews Chimpanzee, calling it “a timely, forward-looking, and harrowing vision that muses unflinchingly on the future while riffing off of the present.”

[ link ]

1670 AM, The Return!

September 4th, 2014 by Darin

Happy to announce that I’ll be making my second ever appearance at 1670 AM, Denton’s own Part 15 radio station, helmed by Real Waves out of downtown Little D. Scott Porter and I are going to talk about books and conspiracies and music whatever we want at 2:00 pm, this Sunday, Sept 7. I’ll have a couple of things to give away, so tune in or log on.

1670 AM

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“Fear the Repo Man”

September 4th, 2014 by Darin

The Denton Record-Chronicle interviewed me about Chimpanzee, the audio-play, and writing in general.

Fear the Repo Man,” by Lucinda Breeding.

Chimpanzee Book Release Party

September 4th, 2014 by Darin

Join me this Tuesday, September 9th, for the Chimpanzee Book Release Party, featuring a staged performance from the Chimpanzee Audio-Play and special performances by the Spitfire Tumbleweeds and the Nice-Up Crew.

Dan’s Silver Leaf, 8:00 pm.
All ages.
Free.

poster

Chimping

September 3rd, 2014 by Darin

Curious what chimping is like in Chimpanzee? Listen to Ben struggle with a new identity, given to him by his anonymous chimping parter.

audio-play

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